In a 2016 interview with NBG, Anthea Bell told me that ‘translation is not – and in my view should not be – a high-profile profession’. She might, then, have been mildly surprised by the rush of lengthy obituaries that appeared in October last year, following her death at the age of eighty-two: you can read about her life and work in all the major UK broadsheets, as well as the New York Times.
Born in Suffolk and a graduate of Oxford University, where she studied English, Anthea came from a family of wordsmiths. Her grandfather Robert Bell was a deputy editor at the Observer, and her father Adrian Bell compiled the Times crossword, helping to inspire her love of wordplay. Her sons Richard and Oliver Kamm continue the tradition: Richard is an academic, and Oliver a columnist for the Times.
Anthea took up translation largely by accident after the birth of her first baby, when the children’s publisher Klaus Flugge asked her then husband, Antony Kamm, if he could recommend someone to translate Otfried Preußler’s The Little Water Sprite. That was in 1961, and over a career spanning six decades, Anthea went on to translate around 250 books from German, French and (occasionally) Danish. Her early love of children’s literature continued, with thirty-five celebrated Asterix translations (in collaboration with Derek Hockridge), as well as books by Erich Kästner, and Cornelia Funke’s bestselling Inkheart trilogy. Among her long list of prizes is the USbased Batchelder Award for children’s literature in translation, which she won four times.
Anthea is remembered with great affection by many of the authors she translated. Cornelia Funke tells me: ‘Anthea Bell dressed my German tales in the most beautiful English robes. They rustled and sang and sometimes I liked them even more than the original. Oh yes. I miss corresponding with her over the meaning of the dust in Dustfinger’s name, and getting advice from her when my German editor had questioned a chapter both she and I loved. I miss discussing fairy names and the origins of Brownies. If I become a storyteller in my next life, I hope Anthea Bell will be my translator.’
‘She was able to give each of our literary voices its own unique and unmistakeable tone and character in English,’ says Julia Franck, another celebrated author translated by Anthea. ‘It is a great honour and fills me with deep gratitude that my novels were translated by her.’
Anthea was one of W.G. Sebald’s translators, working closely with him until his untimely death on books including his 2001 Kindertransport novel Austerlitz. And as Julia Franck recalls, ‘It was only two years ago that a German friend told me enthusiastically that he had read some crazily good English literature: the novel Austerlitz by one W.G. Sebald. When I pointed out to him that he had read Anthea, since Sebald was German and wrote his novels in German, he refused to believe it. For him it was outstanding English literature.’ Anthea was also at least partly responsible for restoring the tarnished reputation of Stefan Zweig. Her wide-ranging body of work includes retranslations of classic works by Freud and Kafka – projects she approached ‘with some awe’, though also with her characteristic wit: the humour in Kafka’s The Castle, she said, kept reminding her of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Although Anthea is perhaps best known for her translations of children’s books and classics, she was also a skilled and prolific translator of crime fiction – ‘from Aichner to von Schirach’, as the translator, editor and blogger Kat Hall points out. At a panel discussion in 2015, Kat remembers Anthea’s ‘glee when she talked about translating Aichner’s murderous anti-heroine’.
In addition to the many translation prizes Anthea won in the course of her long career, she was awarded an OBE in 2010 in recognition of her services to literature – though with typical modesty she rarely put the letters after her name. The German government also presented her with the Cross of the Order of Merit in 2015 for her contribution to literary translation and cultural understanding between Germany and the UK.
Anthea was always active in the translation community: she gave numerous workshops and talks over the years, and contributed a wealth of advice and anecdotes to the Translators Association’s email group. Her top tip for new literary translators was always to have another string to your bow in case the work dried up; she herself translated numerous entries in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Colleagues remember her for her generosity and interest in other people as much as for her intellectual prowess. Helena Kirkby recalls how, twenty years ago, ‘I wrote to her to say I wanted to try to become a translator, and she invited me to her house in Histon. She was immensely generous with her advice and contacts, and I went on to translate the Cornelia Funke Ghosthunters series (among other things) as a direct result.’ Anthea was a council member of the Society of Authors, and a valued long-time member of the NBG editorial committee. The magazine’s former editor, Rebecca K. Morrison, describes how ‘one of the greatest privileges of holding the editorship of NBG for a time was working alongside Anthea: at editorial meetings her great intellect was so gracefully present, so lightly worn, her quiet voice always kind. The time she devoted to meticulous preparation for these, as for all her commitments in the literary world, was greatly appreciated’.
Many translators keep cats, and Anthea was no exception in this regard; in fact, she bred prize-winning Birmans: long-haired, blue-eyed beasts who ruled the roost in her house and whose names included Wittgenstein and Caxton. Her love of cats was reflected in one of her favourite translations: a witty, bizarre early nineteenth-century novel by ETA Hoffmann. She brought it to the attention of an editor at Penguin, and it appeared in 1999 as The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr.
Anthea Bell touched many lives, from her wide circle of friends and colleagues to those who studied and admired her work, and the millions who read her translations, perhaps without even noticing her name on the title page. What moved me most following her death were the social media tributes from readers – people alerted by the obituaries to the fact that Anthea had translated their favourite children’s books. Those were her words they’d been reading, all along, and they never knew: a perfect testament to the art of invisible translation.